Tuesday, July 05, 2005


I see, through the plexiglass, Alberta promenading toward the shop, at her typical glacial pace; Alberta is slooooow. She finally dawdles through the doorway, ringing the little cat-bell chime and, Pavlovian, invoking a certain discomfort for me. I look at her, with the usual mix of pity and antipathy.

Alberta's about 5'4, with wispy, greasy brown hair. She's missing several teeth, with those brown, rotten remainders announcing why the others chose to vacate. She's only 44, but has the body of a woman 20 years older: slack, sallow skin, no muscle tone, plenty of fat. Her most distinguishing feature is those wild, twitchy, pale eyes, shrieking of madness and desperation.

Alberta's a crackhead. Her addiction, if I can blame it, has wiped out whatever intelligence or personality she may have once had. Now she's just need--penetrating, all-encompassing need. High-maintenance on a stick.

"Hi Alberta," I sigh, as she comes in. If an eye-roll could be embodied in voice, that would be the tone I'm aiming for.

"Hi. What's your name again?"

I tell her, for the 400th time. I could just as easily make up a new one on each occasion, for all the good it's going to do helping her remember. She's just not all there anymore.

Alberta washes dishes for a living, although I'm hard-pressed to see how anyone who moves so slowly can keep up with a busy lunch crowd. Yet I realize that it's good that she's still employable, and that someone else besides me, you, and Uncle Sam are footing the bill for her fitty-rocks. But I also know that dishwashing wages can't support a crack habit, and hence am impelled to wonder what unspeakable things she's done and had done to her to finance her hobby. I want, in the depths of my heart, to believe that no self-respecting drug dealer would accept sexual favors from Alberta in exchange for product, but that idea is about as intellectually fecund as the notion of a self-repecting drug dealer. I'm quite sure that I could kick in any door at the Glen and bust the latter out, passing the pipe and acetylene torch around with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, as the old joke goes. That very idea makes me think in the terms of another writer: How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!

But I don't dare judge Alberta. Her desire is simple; she likes crack. Everybody wants something, and are often, or usually, willing to prostitute themselves for it. All those who work slavishly to bring about their desires, whatever they may be, are, on some significant level, whores. Alberta is just the refreshing kind of harlot that doesn't bother to feel superior to other whores; she knows what she is.

Eventually Alberta comes to my counter and pays for her stuff. Her bill for the soda and roll of toilet paper she's getting today amounts to $1.66. She does her standard two-minute fumbling about with her wallet after I announce the tally, holding up the growing line behind her. I take her money, give her her change, and then gently push her aside with the left hand so I can deal with the other customers while she takes another two minutes to put her money away. "Alberta, step aside, please" is what I say, in dispassionate monotone.

"Wow, you sound like a cop when you say that," she replies, without a hint of sarcasm.

My quickish retort is, "gosh, Alberta, how would you know that?" It's not the best comeback ever, but it does successfully mute her. She's obviously been part of some canned, unreleased, COPS episode. If not, she should certainly audition.

Weirdly, Alberta's never bothered by the fact that she's just been herded aside like cattle. My brusque demeanor doesn't hurt her feelings, even if it embarasses her slightly, because she has no feelings left to hurt. It's the crackhead's version of enlightenment: she's sunk to a point where she just doesn't care, and so it's difficult for me to offend her. It's liberation of the ego via narcotics; I suspect that whatever Universal Ultimate monitors and governs Alberta's destiny might almost approve.

Yet, ultimately, I prefer Alberta's brand of self-sale, if proffered the option between hers and that of her putative social betters--hers is utterly devoid of arrogance or pretension. That her idea of happiness doesn't seek to belittle, demean, or displace others is, in fact, rather uncommon. That's a complement I can't extend to too many people. So I feel a certain sympathy for, and almost an affinity with, Alberta. Her powelessness grants her the freedom to do what she likes, reputation and consequences be damned. Her dismissal by society as worthless is, in a unique logical contortion, a quality nearly to be admired, and perhaps even envied. Most of us have to worry about the choices we make; Alberta can be whatever she wants to be, because nobody cares about the people who choose to be forlorn junkies.

There are, of course, plenty of Albertas where I work, and each one has a story, a history, that can teach me things about paths better left unchosen. So I don't look at the alcoholics, the pot-fiends, the crackheads that come before me each and every shift with the summary dismissal that most people grant them. I have developed, without consent and perhaps even against my will, a quasi-paternal affection for them, that transcends the reality of how much they irritate me by being unwashed, unmannered and unlettered distractions from whatever I may be trying to clean or stock when they darken my doorstep. As Alberta, just before leaving, was pulling another of her favorite tricks, requesting for me to combine all of her dimes and nickles into quarters after I'd moved her aside and was trying to process the line she had caused, another quote in reference to her, from that guy I mentioned above came to mind:

This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.